Friday, September 19, 2014

Animals Out of Paper (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Origami is a Japanese art form based upon the folding of paper into new shapes. As the central character notes, paper begins flat but when folded it gains a scar and becomes something new. More folding and more scars can in time create a shape, something beautiful or mediocre, but certainly new--so that even if unfolded the paper cannot help but remain forever changed. As vivid a metaphor for life as one can imagine, yes? And playwright Rajiv Joseph's Animals Out of Paper takes that metaphor and examines it in countless ways, played out in the lives three people.
Credit: Michael Lamont

Andy Folley (C.S. Lee) teaches calculus and acts as Treasurer for American Origami. He goes to see a renowned origami artist he's admired for a long time, Ilana Andrews (Tess Lina), whom he's met only once. He arrives at night, unannounced, amidst a thunderstorm she herself hasn't noticed, since her studio has no windows. She's retreated there following a double tragedy--the disappearance of her beloved dog and the end of her marriage. Why has Andy come? That question is at the heart of the first scene, and it is awhile before this cranky, interesting, driven woman finally gets it out of him. Along the way, he leaves two things behind--one deliberately, the other by accident. Tellingly, in many ways it is the latter that seizes her interest. A book, filled with a hand-written list kept since childhood.

The consequences which follow involve a high school student of Andy's named Suresh (Kapil Talwalkar), brilliant and traumatized by the sudden death of his mother as well as other things (we get a hint of a somehow helpless father and an unreliable sister). Recently having discovered origami, Suresh respects Andy enough to go and allow Ilana to tutor him.

Credit: Michael Lamont
Along the way we find the metaphors in very nearly every breath of dialogue.  Illana has stalled in her work on helping design a mesh to surround damaged hearts. She gives away a huge origami bird hanging abovethe sofa where she sleeps.  Later she and Suresh visit an origami convention in Nagasaki, second city in history to have been seared by atomic fire. The two argue over different styles of origami--he in particular having trouble with how she does all kinds of "first drafts" many of which are failures. Likewise he loves a neat environment and she needs things in the open, visible, a mess in short. Illana and Andy go out on a date, on Valentine's Day no less and he gives her an origami heart, a crude one. Frankly, the playwright deserves lots of credit for handling what could be awkward, symbolic hammer-on-the-head message-writing and instead simply turns the story into something like a poem.

Or a piece of origami.

Credit: Michael Lamont
Likewise the words of the playwright really are pretty much dead without the actor. Although well-written, the fact remains these characters might easily come across as a bunch of ticks rather than people in the hands of less-accomplished performers. Andy could become farcical. Illana (a Sagittarius if ever I saw one) is so tactless one must be careful not to let the audience end up hating her. Suresh (a Cancer, in my opinion, complete with shell) has such strong emotions he's trying to hide or suppress all the time it takes more than an average actor to bring him to life. The whole cast made for an intense three-person ensemble, covering between them an extraordinary range of the human condition. Even if I did know almost exactly how it was going to end by halfway through the second act.

I want to also make a point about the direction and staging of the production. When sets change, or we're supposed to simply accept that a certain amount of time has passed, many productions lose the audience at these moments. They have to struggle to get them back. Not so here! In fact, I'd offer this production as a virtual lesson in how to avoid that potential problem!

Credit: Michael Lamont
My biggest complaint--which is perhaps not very fair--remains that after a time I knew what was going to happen. But is that just, really? Isn't the nature of this kind of story--the rebirth of one's life through a transformative pain (see the description of folding paper above)--like a formula? And one thing I cannot deny is the precise emotional impact created. Save perhaps that I personally saw Andy as going through as great and as potentially positive a change as the others. In effect he loses a ritual with which he has avoided pain, avoiding learning and evolving through it. But we're left unaware of how he will cope. Left wondering and hoping and fearing.

No bad thing, that.

Animals Out of Paper plays at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts at 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012 through October 5, 2014. You can purchase tickets online here or by calling  (213) 625-7000. Ticket prices range from $28-$38 each.

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